By Rocco Loiacono
I think I would have been around ten years-old when I watched the film ‘Ladri di biciclette’, known in English as ‘Bicycle Thieves’ or ‘The Bicycle Thief’.
Produced and directed by Vittorio De Sica, it was made in 1948 and is set in Rome just after the end of the Second World War. By the mid-1950s much of the Italian economy had been rebuilt thanks in no small part to aid from the United States through the Marshall Plan, in the years after the war’s end the country was ravaged by unemployment, poverty, and the risk of famine. In April 1946 this headline and story appeared in The Canberra Times.
Italy on eve of starvation, Grain stocks low’. The story explained: ‘Italian Cabinet Ministers and U.N.R.R.A. (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) officials are meeting this week-end in an attempt to find means to meet the increasingly grim food situation throughout Italy. U.N.R.R.A. officials said that there was only enough grain in Italy to permit continuance of the 7-ounce daily bread ration for 10 days. The Italian Foreign Minister (Signor De Gasperi) in a speech, declared, ‘Starvation has not yet come to Italy, but we are on the eve.
Bicycle Thieves is the story of unemployed Antonio Ricci, who is struggling to support his wife and two children, one a new-born. He is offered a job placing advertising posters which requires him to have a bicycle. Unable to afford one, his wife pawns her dowry linen, which for a poor family was a prized possession, so that he can purchase the bike. On his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Unable to apprehend the thief, he reports the theft to the police, who advise there is little they can do. In the end, desperate, Antonio tries to steal a bike himself outside the stadium after a football match, but is apprehended. The bike’s owner shows compassion and does not wish to press charges. Antonio and his son walk away amid the crowds and the film ends.
I just could not believe what I had seen. What, no happy ending? When it finished I asked my grandparents, ‘Ma finisce così? – Is that how it ends?’ They replied, ‘Così era – That’s how it was.’ They lived in Rome in the late 1940s, having moved there from Calabria just after the end of the war. They knew what it was like.
‘Bicycle Thieves’ is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It’s interesting that a competitor for that title ‘The Godfather’ is about Italians in the New World.
Unemployment and poverty is what my grandparents and so many others left behind in post-war Italy when they came to Australia. Emigration was seen by the Italian government as a safety valve to relieve social discontent and to prevent the rise of communism. In 1949 the head of the Australian government legation in the country reported on a meeting. ‘It was mentioned to me at the Vatican that acceleration of Italian migration would be welcomed. There are thousands of people in Italy who barely earn sufficient to keep them alive and working, and while this position endures the fears of Communism increase.’
Initially my grandfather and his family that included his son, who is my father, settled in a small town in the south west of Western Australia, Duranillin, 223 kilometres from Perth. He was one of many thousands of Italian migrants who felled trees and cleared land for the state’s forestry and farming industries. Like many in migrant families my father did very little formal education in Australia and got himself a trade. Whatever he earned, he did so because he worked hard, in spite of hardships and setbacks. He had no-one to advocate for him. He managed to run a successful business and put three children through school. Australia made this possible for him.
My father told me that as soon as he arrived in Australia he liked it. That is why some fifty years ago, my father made a momentous decision. He decided to become an Australian citizen. This decision was all the more difficult since, back then, if one wanted to do so, he or she had to renounce allegiance to his or her country of origin. Italy did not legislate for dual-citizenship until 1992, and Australia did not do so until 2002. While becoming an Australian didn’t mean my father could no longer support Italy in the football, the decision would have been gut-wrenching. However, after years of struggle that would be familiar to all post-Second World War migrants, my father reasoned that as a recently married man his future, even though he would always love his original homeland, lay here. He still proudly has the Bible that was presented to him at his naturalisation ceremony, with a picture of Her (now late) Majesty the Queen on the inside cover. Rule of law, freedom, opportunity. That is what Australia represented to him. For these reasons, he, along with the waves of migrants that came to this country, believed in Australia, and because he believed in Australia, so did I.
Migration to Australia has come in several ‘waves’, often surrounding gold rushes or wars. In Western Australia the first major European migration, particularly from Italy and Greece, occurred during the 1890s gold rushes. The second followed in the years after the Great War, and the third after the Second World War. Since the early 2000s there has been a significant number of young professional migrants come to Australia to make a new life, since for them it represented, like it did for the generations of migrants that came before them, a land of freedom and opportunity. They, too, hail from southern European countries like Italy, which have been in economic stagnation for some time, thanks to, among other things, bureaucracy and red tape. Sound familiar?
There are many parallels between the way migrants were treated by the ‘elites’ of their time, and the way everyday Australians are being treated by ‘elites’ today. Migrants were able to overcome attitudes and prejudices to make a successful life in this country and end up earning the respect and, in many quarters, the gratitude of a nation they helped to build. It is their spirit we will need to draw on once again to overcome the prejudices of the ‘elites’ against our much cherished Australian way of life, which in many ways was made possible by those who, in the words of the national anthem, came across the seas to make Australia their home since there were boundless plains to share. I firmly believe it is this migrant spirit, and what it represents, that must be harnessed to return to the values that made Australia one of the most successful nations on earth.
Like the history of any country, Australia has its blemishes with regard to the treatment of migrants. As the son of migrants, I know first-hand the injustices and hardships my parents and grandparents suffered when they decided to come to a country on the other side of the world. With a completely different language and culture they tried to make a life for themselves and escape a Europe which, even though being rebuilt, still bore many scars, both psychological and economic, from the horrors of war. However, as former prime minister John Howard has often commented, the overwhelming majority of Australians, although inevitably acknowledging the injustices of its past, are proud of what this country has achieved and the not insignificant part that successive waves of migration have contributed to that. It is a source of immense pride to migrants themselves, and their families as well.
As Western Australian researcher on Italian migration, Susanna Iuliano, wrote:
Loyalty rests with which nation or government delivers the best standard of living for families and communities. The migrants who remained in Australia and established their families and livelihoods here have already voted with their feet: Australia has won their loyalty. For most, however, being Italian or Australian is not an either-or proposition. Depending on the context, they identify as both.
Using their intelligence, resourcefulness and connections to family and kin, Italian migrants were able to negotiate their way around political and bureaucratic systems that scarcely recognised them, let alone reflected their interests, and travel halfway across the world to fulfil their own economic and personal goals. Despite the claim they were like ‘lost sheep’, […] Italian migrants have shown themselves to be shrewd and altogether more foxlike than sheeplike.
Migrants have generally been seen as the natural constituency of the Labor Party. Yet my father and his family (as well as my mother and her family) were attracted to the Liberal Party. It was as if Sir Robert Menzies’ words in his ‘forgotten people’ speech were meant for them. Menzies defined the ‘forgotten people’ as, ‘salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class.’ Menzies added that they were ‘not rich enough to have individual power’ but ‘taken for granted by each political party in turn.’ He called them as ‘the backbone of the nation.’ These forgotten people then became the ‘Howard battlers’, ‘Tony’s tradies’, and, dare I say it, the ‘quiet Australians’.
For all my life, despite the fact that I was born and raised in this country, as the son of migrants, I have always considered myself an Italo-Australian. I still do. At university I studied Law/Arts with a specialisation in the Italian language. I enjoyed my Italian studies far more than I did my law degree, since, thankfully, my professors at the time were some of the best scholars in the world in Italian literature and history. I was fortunate enough to be able to undertake six months of research for my doctorate at the Università di Bologna, the oldest, and one of the finest, universities in the world. The love of my heritage and language is thanks to my migrant parents and grandparents.
As well as a love of my heritage and language, like all good grandparents and parents, mine also taught me many other valuable things that one cannot learn in an educational environment. They taught me the value of commitment, hard work, and determination. To stand up for what you believe in. To not let setbacks prevent you from achieving. These values are encapsulated in the ‘migrant spirit’, to which this country owes much of its success. ‘She’ll be right mate’ was never part of their philosophy. They couldn’t afford it to be.
It’s understandable that my father and so many others who have declared their allegiance to this country feel betrayed. They feel that somehow Australia has changed. We have turned our back on the rule of law, free enterprise, and liberty that made this country one of the most successful on earth and a magnet for migrants to leave war-torn Europe, and other countries plagued by political instability or ruled by hateful dictators. People like my father, who built this nation, are being taken for granted. Their common sense and ingenuity are being brushed aside as this country worships the gods of big government and wokeness, among other things. Australia to them is a free and democratic county in name only. Migrants from old Eastern bloc countries have expressed that what they have witnessed in Australia over the last few years is a frightening reminder of their experiences in the countries they fled. Many of the young Italian migrants of the most recent wave have said to me that they came to Australia because they thought it was a free country, but now they are not so sure.
Unfortunately, there is evidence of a return to some of the bureaucratic snobbery previously displayed towards migrants. While our politicians travel the world encouraging skilled migration to Australia, attempts by migrants here at obtaining visas to enable them to work and visit their relatives are met with roadblocks. Even after expending considerable amounts for visa applications, many are told they will simply have to ‘sit and wait’.
Just as the cultural elites these days have a poor opinion of everyday Australians, treating them with disdain, as was the case with Menzies’ forgotten people, the same was the case insofar as migrants were concerned. As distinct from an official government level, where, for example in 1962 then Immigration Minister Alick Downer publicly defended Italian migrants as ‘valuable settlers, family loving people and law-abiding’ the attitudes of certain bureaucrats and some in Australian society generally was quite different.
Until the 1960s, many had a poor opinion of Italian culture, and Italian migrants were seen by some as inferior people, with no intelligence or capability – sound familiar? Once Italians enjoyed economic independence – made possible because it was a virtue this country cherished – it made Australians understand that Italians were not inferior to them, that they were human beings with the same intelligence and capabilities they couldn’t demonstrate earlier, principally because of language difficulties. They supported their children, found good jobs, built good houses and through hard work they liberated themselves from poverty and need.
By being mobile, flexible, thrifty and willing to pool family resources, they became the backbone of the nation. They identified with the great Australian dream. It was the freedom this nation offered, as a major part of that dream, that empowered them and allowed them to unleash their inventiveness and creativity. Hence, like my father, they feel most betrayed when they see this freedom being eroded.
Christo Moskovsky was born Bulgaria in the 1950s and arrived in Australia in 1993 as an academic studying linguistics at the University of Newcastle. Half his life was spent under communism. Connor Court has recently published his memoir ‘The Lucky Country: Reflections on Reminiscences of a Long-Term Immigrant’.
Moskovsky makes an important point about the attacks Australians often make about their country. Often those who are the most negative about Australia and who regard their country as irredeemably intolerant, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic and so on have an Anglo-Australian background. Sometimes those who have been here five minutes are more fond of this country than those who have been here five generations.
Unfavourable judgements [about Australia] are almost invariably provided by ethnic Anglo-Australians, most typically representing the country’s political and cultural elites. These are affluent and privileged individuals who are have gained the most from Australia’s success and prosperity.
Immigrants’ perceptions are quite often in stark contrast. Put simply, most immigrants like Australia and her people. We are very comfortable building a new life here… In the eyes of most new Australians, Aussies are exceptionally decent, down-to-earth, tolerant and accepting – perhaps more so than any other nationality.
Ordinary Aussies are highly egalitarian, completely irreverent to authority, thoroughly loyal to their mates. ‘Could it be that in Australia there were no master and servants as we knew them?’ asks the main character, Nino Culotta in ‘They’re a Weird Mob’…
Large sections of the Australian community – mostly ethnic Anglo-Australians – have developed a deeply irrational sense of guilt. They seem to have succumbed to decades-long propaganda promulgated by a small number of very vocal activists (mostly from the extreme left) pushing the view that Australia’s prosperity has been built on the back of social and racial injustice and oppression. The fact that even the least well-off people here are immensely better than 99 per cent of the rest of the world has stubbornly managed to remain outside the public consciousness. It is so easy to take the things we have for granted.
Moreover, as Moskovsky states tellingly it is new Australians who speak up for what once made Australia a great nation.
Somewhat paradoxically, this situation has left us – the new Australians, the many immigrants from all over the world – to speak up for the true greatness of Australia. Having the background of our earlier pre-Australia lives gives us a perspective that many native-born Australians lack. It gives us a sense of reality, the ability to truly appreciate the Australian miracle.
We do not take for granted the freedoms, the rights, the opportunities, and the unparalleled prosperity that Australian offers.
Australia is presently on a different path to the one that ensured its success. This new path has us wandering, like the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, in the desert, mindlessly building figurative golden calves to worship in the absenc